There are many myths afoot about the movement to save Darfur. Chief among them in recent weeks is the rumor of its death. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a longtime ally, has declared the movement to be fragmented by internal disagreement and dismissed by those in power. Alex de Waal, a leading self-critical voice among Sudan watchers, laments that it is archaic and unwilling to adapt its ways. Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani, in a recent book on the subject, all but declared the Darfur movement a waste of time.
Mamdani's distorted broadside notwithstanding, there are probably grains of truth to any thoughtful critique of the Darfur movement. It is far from perfect, and an accurate accounting of its strengths and weaknesses is long overdue. But such calls to declare defunct efforts to save the war-torn Sudanese region miss the point. Millions of activists around the world remain committed to the cause of peace in Sudan. It's just that no one is telling them that now is the moment they are needed most.
There has never been a more critical time in Sudan's history than the present. This summer, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is celebrating two decades of dictatorship, having come to power in a coup in 1989. During Bashir's tenure, Africa's largest country has steadily declined into a model failed state. Home to the 21st century's first genocide, Sudan now boasts more displaced persons than any country on Earth.
According to the current issue of Foreign Policy, it is among the three countries in the world most at risk of total collapse. Bashir himself is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, rape, and attacks against civilian populations. Even so, he looks set to win a national election next year. The following year, 2011, will bring a national referendum on the secession of Southern Sudan, which most experts expect to pass. This will split the country in two and render obsolete existing peace agreements, including the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was intended to end the country's 12-year civil war and set out the parameters for peace.
All of this means the international community now faces an 18-month window in which to fix the whole mess. And originally, nobody seemed better equipped to do so than Barack Obama. As a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Obama seemed particularly attuned to Sudan's urgent and tragic trajectory, calling it "a stain on our souls." Joining him were Senate colleagues Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. During the campaign, Clinton was fond of demanding a "more robust response." Biden was the most out front, at one point proclaiming he did not "have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur." But since taking office, the Obama administration has been slow to translate rhetoric into action.